Half-time Look at the NFL's Leaders: AFC

<p>In the first of a two part series this week I'll look at the AFC's campaign for the playoffs and ultimately the Championship game in the NFL's version of Commitment 2004, on Saturday we'll preview the NFC.</p>

Half-time - AFC
By Christopher G. Shepard

In the first of a two part series this week I'll look at the AFC's campaign for the playoffs and ultimately the Championship game in the NFL's version of Commitment 2004, on Saturday we'll preview the NFC.

Last year Carolina Panthers Head Coach John Fox told his team that much like a football game, the NFL season has four quarters. If that is true then NFL teams have reached half-time after eight hard fought games. Half-time is crucial during a game for coaches and coordinators to make the adjustments necessary to win in the second half. It is also crucial during the season. Teams now have enough film to scout future opponents, diagnose their weaknesses, and play to their strengths.

The 2003 Carolina Panthers sported a 6-2 record after eight games ending their regular season 11-5 and ultimately going to the Championship Game while the 2003 Pittsburgh Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and ended the year 6-10 with many Steelers fans calling for Head Coach Bill Cowher's head.

How times have changed. But we'll get to the Steelers in a minute.

The New England Patriots last year were 6-2 after week eight and fought the rest of the season like Alexander, the Great against the Persians, slaughtering their foes with nary a defeat their next 11 games to win the Championship. This year the Patriots look even better with a 7-1 record. Their only loss came at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Looking ahead to the next eight games the Patriots conceivably could go undefeated again, or at the very least 7-1. They have a tough conference road game on December 26 at the revenge minded New York Jets who will most likely have a healthy Chad Pennington fully recovered from his shoulder injury in the Buffalo game last week.

This year the AFC has the look of a championship conference again. Realistically there are four elite teams and two pretenders who will make it to the playoffs. You don't need to be a wise guy in Las Vegas to know which six teams will make it, either.

Here is how I see the top ranked AFC teams chances for the playoffs and Championship game at half-time of the 2004 Season.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1)

Is it possible to turn your team around this much in the NFL with a rookie QB and a disgruntled RB? If you ask the Steel City Madmen the answer is a resounding yes. For years observers of the Steelers said, get a decent QB, Slash sucks. Finally, they have one in Ben Roethlisberger. Add the resurgent RB dynamic due of Duce Staley and a Cocooned Jerome Bettis, with little drop off when Haynes fills in and you have a powerful backfield. Then there are their speedy marquee receivers in Ward and Burress and you have a heretofore unstoppable offense. On the other side of the ball, Defensive Coordinator Dick Lebeau has made all the right moves. Shoring up their weak CB's by adding Ricardo Colclough and Ike Taylor, as well as VA Tech stud, the Steelers' number 5 pick, OLB/DE Nathaniel Adidi.

The Steelers are the beneficiary of playing a schedule befitting their 6-10 record last year and have already beaten two undefeated, Championship contender teams, the 2003-2004 Champion New England Patriots who were 6-0 at the time and NFC title game losers, the Philadelphia Eagles who were 7-0. A look ahead to the Steelers' remaining eight games, the only possible loss I see is at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, but this also seems unlikely. I love the Steelers to run the table and end up with the #1 seed in the playoffs and win as the AFC representative in the big game. For those who say it is impossible for a rookie QB to win the big one his first year, we only need to look as far as our own New England Patriots and Tom Brady.

2. New England Patriots (14-2)

Sitting atop the AFC East has become natural for Head Coach Bill Belichick's Patriots. Indeed, not even injuries seem to slow this disciplined team at home or on the road (other than a minor ketchup stain on the uniform). As we witnessed the defensively depleted Patriots last week against a supposedly high-octane offense, the injured home town heroes made the adjustments by sticking Troy Brown as a fill-in corner (almost had an INT!), using ROLB Mike Vrabel as a TE and PK Adam Vinatieri as a QB throwing a TD to WR Troy Brown. Add a premier running back in Corey Dillon who has gained more yards this year during the course of eight games than A. Smith did the entire 2003 season. The win once again showed the dominance of HC Belichick over Mike Martz. It also showed me the amazing resiliency of the New England Patriots who each week find a new and different player to rise to the occasion.

This is why the Patriots are a great team. Belichick leads the holy football triumvirate with OC Charlie Weiss and DC Romeo Crennel as the best trio of coaches in the NFL today. What makes them so good is not only their ability to devise a game plan, but to get their players to execute the plays as well.

No team in the NFL executes the coaches' directives like this New England Patriots team. If there was any doubt about the validity of this statement, again look at what this team did against the St. Louis Rams. The Patriots ability to make the half-time adjustments, execute their game plan and beat any team on any given Sunday makes them the Steelers' AFC title game opponent.

3. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

Most experts agree that this year the toughest division in football is the AFC South. With four teams knotted up the experienced power trio of Manning, Harrison and James gives the Colts a step up in class than the rest in the division. It is experience and know how that give the Colts the edge as they gallop to the playoffs. However, the only thing we need to know is that for the Colts the road to the Championship will go through Foxboro at some point. Napoleon had Waterloo and the Colts have Foxboro. Last year in their playoff run, the Colts did not punt when they beat the Broncos and the Chiefs by a combined score of 79-41. Manning was stellar with 8 TD passes and 0 INTs. Then the Colts came to Foxboro for the title match and lost 24-14 with the Colts turning the ball over 5 times. And while we cannot count out the Colts, their chances are slim to none if they have to play the Patriots.

4. Denver Broncos (11-5)

So far the jury is still out on the experiment for HC Mike Shanahan who got involved with a blockbuster trade in the off-season trading RB Clinton Portis for CB Champ Bailey. However, against the Bengals Bailey got torched by Chad Johnson and Carson Palmer. On the Redskins side, while Portis is producing numbers, the team is still losing for obnoxious owner Dan Snyder. This makes me happy.

Meanwhile, Denver is trying its level best to return to the playoffs, but with a different result, a win. While Denver is probably the best team in the West (considering KC's propensity for blowing the big games and lack of D), they also will benefit from a favorable second-half schedule that should propel them to the fourth seed and a one in done in the playoffs.

5. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Do you think Eli Manning regrets demanding a trade? Maybe not since his Giants look like they'll be starting him any day and with the way Brees has played there is no chance he would start in the foreseeable future. However, these Chargers at the beginning of the season were talking 8-8 for a year would be a victory for the team and Marty Ball. However, now Marty Ball has believers in not only Charger's players, but fans of the NFL. Indeed, QB Drew Brees has had an amazing year, and the talent he has been given on Offense it is now surprise. However, as they say in chaos theory, the center cannot hold. Not the actual center hiking the ball, but the forces that control this team. They have been playing over their heads and soon the balloon of euphoria should pop and the Chargers will float down to earth, but not before they have a few more good wins that should propel them into the wild card game where we see them beating the Jacksonville Jaguars.

6. Jacksonville (10-6)

When Jacksonville was awarded with the 2004-2005 season Championship Game, few people from Ulee to Fernandina Beach expected their 5-11 Jaguars to bounce back and vie for a Wildcard spot for the AFC. If sophomore Head Coach Jack Del Rio's faith in large Thundering Herd QB Byron Leftwich's was tested last year, he is being rewarded this year. Of course starting the 2003 campaign with a 1-7 record over the first eight games, so sitting on a 5-3 record must be a boon for those who like to buy their liquor with a setup (to go cup with ice) without leaving the friendly confines of their pickup trucks.

However, Leftwich is now out due to an injured knee, but in a recent Del Rio press conference, the ex-Viking player said that his QB will not need surgery and he expects his 6'5 QB to return in time to play the Vikings at the end of November.

On offense there have been times when the Jaguars have been anemic. However, they have produced when they needed it most. On the road against Buffalo they scored a last second TD to win the game

A glance at the Jaguars remaining eight games shows a schedule befitting a 5-11 team. Their most difficult match-ups are when they'll host Pittsburgh at home in week 13 and go on the road to Green Bay in week 15. I like the Jaguars to mirror their first half by going 5-3 in the second half of the season that should be good enough to earn a wild card spot where their run of good fortune will run out against the spunky San Diego Chargers.

You can find The Impaler's weekly column here each week as he contemplates the odds and provides perspective for the top 5 picks for the week. Have a bone to pick, want some more insights, just want to talk football? You can reach Chris in the forums, under the screenname: christheimpaler.

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